Saturday, February 14, 2009

What kind of cake? Birthday.

Ulysses is into knights and castles these days, so I got the idea to make him a cake shaped like a castle, with crenolated turrets made from flat-bottomed ice cream cones, and spires of inverted pointy cones. I was going to bake in a big, rectangular pan, cut out the center for a courtyard, and build up the corner towers with the material I had cut out from the center. Graham cracker drawbridge and door. Licorice ropes.

"Ulysses, your birthday is coming," I told him a couple of weeks ago. "How would you like a cake shaped like a castle?"

"A castle cake? No," he said.

"For your birthday cake," I said. "With towers and a gate and a courtyard."

"No!" he said.

Obviously he didn't understand what I meant, I thought. I showed him some pictures of castle cakes on the Internet. "No," he said to all of them. "No cake castle."

What's with this kid? I thought. Doesn't he realize how fabulous this cake will be? I started up the conversation a few more times over the following week. It always went the same way.

Then I had a brainstorm. "Ulysses," I said, "Your birthday is coming up. I will make you any kind of cake you want, in any shape. What kind of cake would you like for your birthday?"

He answered without hesitation. "A mountain."

I was embarrassed at how silly I'd been. Whose birthday was it, anyway?

"A mountain!" I said, "Do you want your mountain to be a volcano?"


It was such a great idea, I assumed he'd misunderstood the question. I asked him a few more times, describing how the cake would look, with lava and all.


So I supposed I wasn't completely cured of whatever led me to try to feist the castle idea on him. I dropped the volcano idea and thought I'd draw out some more details.

"Do you want the mountain to have a tunnel going through it?"

"Mmmmm.... yes," he said, decisively.

Uh-oh. How on earth was I going to put a tunnel in a cake? Well, I'd walked myself right into that one. I got on the Internet and found a cake that looked promising. It even had a Thomas the Tank Engine track running through it, with trains going round and round! Perfect -- we've got all that. Donald looked at the picture and description and explained to me how it was made (he's genius at that sort of thing, unlike me). Great! I could do that!

I showed Ulysses. "Is this what you want for your birthday cake, something like this?"

He looked pleased. "Yes," he said, like a happy client to an architect who had finally figured out the assignment.

I spent some time figuring out how to put the track together on the board I'd be building the cake on. Took some pictures to guide me in reconstructing it later. Over the week, I gathered materials, and thought about how to build this thing. Emptied and cleaned a big tomato can for the tunnel (it would be slit down one side and then stretched open).

* * *

Yesterday evening, Ulysses and I were at the grocery store. I was shopping for the candies to make into jelly bean boulders, peanut cluster rocks, pretzels for logs and so forth.

I thought I'd better do a reality check. I squatted down to Ulysses, who was in the little car in front of the shopping cart, and said, "Ulysses. You know your birthday is coming." He looked at me. "I will make you any kind of cake you want for your birthday party. What kind of cake do you want?"

"A birthday cake," he said. "Round birthday cake."

"Do you want it to look like a mountain?"

He looked at me as if I had just turned purple. "No."

"Do you want a cake shaped like a mountain with a tunnel in it?'


"Do you want a mountain cake with a tunnel and a train going through it, like the picture we looked at and you said that was what you wanted for your birthday cake?"

"No! No!" His voice began to rise in panic.

"Okay, okay, you want a round birthday cake," I said, switching tracks. "Do you want it to be chocolate?"


"Do you want it to be chocolate on the outside and chocolate on the inside, or yellow on the inside?"

"Chocolate outside and yellow inside," he said.

After a bit we went to the baking aisle and I showed him a cake mix with a picture on the box of a yellow cake with chocolate frosting. "Does this look like the kind of cake you want for your birthday cake?"

"Yes!" he said with excitement. I saw a flash of confusion cross his face when I put the box back on the shelf, but it was gone quickly when he heard me say, "OK. That's the kind of cake I'll make for your party."

"Yes! Birthday cake! Round! Chocolate outside, yellow inside!" he said.

So that is the current plan for the Sunday party. Meantime I already have a double batch of frosting (half is chocolate), enough for the enormous mountain, which would have used two cake recipes.

Maybe I'll make a small mountain cake for my own amusement.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

A definition of fashion

After all, what is fashion but some guy doing something that's not in style – first?

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Kupus: Serbian cabbage soup

The most fundamental heirloom recipes are often most at risk for being lost in the sands of times. Why? One reason is that "everyone knows" how to make them, and so nobody writes them down. Another is that they're so close to us, so intertwined with daily life and the act of ordinary eating, that the people who live with these recipes don't even think of them as recipes.

Consider the peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich. If you were raised in the USA, you might snort and say, "PBJ? You don't need a recipe for that. You just make it." And that is precisely what would make a recipe for, or a really accurate and comprehensive description of, that thing difficult to find a generation after it has gone out of style.

Years ago, I had some friends over for a writing session. I had just made a pot of soup, so I shared it with them. Never would I have dreamed of making it especially for guests; it was just ordinary soup.

They went crazy over it. They demanded the recipe. The richly flavored broth, the big, rustic chunks of well varied vegetables, the savory rings of sliced sausage – they enthused over the most ordinary features in their ordinary bowls. I was taken aback. "There is no recipe," I said, "It's just soup."

"What kind of soup?" they wanted to know.

"Cabbage soup?" I said, feeling like I was giving a flip answer. The soup was built around the cabbage. I didn't know what else to call it.

"Well, can we have the recipe for your cabbage soup?"

"Um, OK," I said, and then never did anything about it. The idea seemed weird, writing a recipe for this. Wasn't it obvious from looking at, how it was done? You go into the kitchen and start putting things into a pot until you have soup. What was there to say?

It took me years to notice that I was responding just as home cooks too often do about the everyday food that is the bedrock of their own culture's cuisine. I've been on the other side of the conversation myself, trying to pry open the oyster that somehow won't believe there's a pearl. There's no recipe. It's just minestrone. There's no recipe. It's just tempeh with onions. Or chile ancho stew, or chicken and dumplings.

And that's how stuff gets lost.

Reflecting on my ordinary soup, which seemed so inchoate, so spontaneous and free of recipe or method, I realized there was plenty I knew about it. First of all, it has a name: Kupus. The "u"s are long, as in cuckoo, and the stress is on the first syllable. It means "cabbage soup," and it's the same as the word for cabbage itself. Sauerkraut, an ingredient I'd forgotten to include for years, is called "Kiseli Kupus" (KEE-seh-lee KOO-poos), or sour cabbage. So the whole thing is sort of cabbage to the third power.

I didn't make this soup up, as I had thought (actually, I wasn't thinking). I learned it from my mother, who made it often. I do a couple of things differently than she did; she used a can of Campbell's vegetable or cream of mushroom soup to fortify the broth, while I use a couple of
cups of my homemade stock -- the type I usually have on hand is chicken. I use a wider range of root veg also. I remember her using potato and carrot; I like to include parsnip and rutabaga as well.

Also, I include the soft, inner green leaves of a celery bunch in my aromatics, sauteeing it along with the onion. This is a trick I learned from my macrobiotic years, along with the roll cut, which I use for the parsley.

This is one of those dishes that everyone makes, and everyone makes a little differently. My mother made it different ways, too: sometimes with a hamhock, sometimes with no meat at all, sometimes with kielbasa as I've described below. We called whatever sausage we used "kobasica" (ko-BAH-seet-sa), the Serbian word for sausage. The vegetable combo varied, too.

Kupus is a wonderful, comforting soup, especially in wintertime. I love to have plenty of broth in my bowl, and I always take an extra moment to select a spoon that will be pleasant to sip from. I like to have a big chunk of cabbage in my bowl, and carve off bits with the spoon as I go.

The simplicity of the seasoning is, I think, elegant: salt, bay leaves, parsely. Whole peppercorns exude a soft, ember-like warmth that grinding shatters and sharpens (I've tried); it's key to the soup's character. Parsnips, rutabagas, even potatoes -- these are optional. Whole peppercorns are essential.

Kupus (Serbian cabbage soup)

Ingredients (listed in the order they're added to the pot)

• 3 tablespoons olive oil
• 1 large onion, sliced
• the inside of a bunch of celery, including leaves and tender shoots
• 2 outer stalks of celery, cut in 1/2" crescents
• 4 carrots, cut in 1/2" rings
• 2 parsnips, roll cut
• 1/2 rutabaga, cut in 1/4" x 1/4" x 3/4" slabs
• 2 cups homemade chicken stock or beef stock, brought to the boil
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 10 whole peppercorns
• 2 bay leaves
• 1/2 cup fresh parsley, or 3 tablespoons dried parsley
• 1 small cabbage, or 1/2 cabbage, cut in chunks that include the core
• 2–3 medium potatoes, scrubbed and cut in 8 or • 12 pieces (cut longways, then 3 or 4 horizontal cuts)
• 1–2 packages of Polish kielbasa (or ring baloney, or a big hamhock), cut in 1/2" rings
• 2 cups sauerkraut, with the juice (Gundelsheimer is my favorite!)
• several cups water, brought to the boil

You will need a big pot, at least 6 quarts capacity.

Heat the oil in the pot over medium-low. Add onions and cook until they're a light golden brown, about 10 minutes. Add the inner parts of the celery and cook until softened, about 3 minutes. Add the carrots, parsnips and rutabagas. They don't need to hit the pot at the same time; just keep prepping and adding to the pot as you get them ready.

In a separate pot, heat the stock to a boil and add it to your sauteed veg. Add the salt, peppercorns, bay leaves and parsely. From this point on, it is not necessary to stir after adding anything.

In yet another pot, or a tea kettle, bring several cups of water to boil, but don't add it just yet.

Prep and add the cabbage. When you prep the cabbage, don't cut out the core. That's essential for keeping it in big chunks that stay together during cooking. Just slice off the very bottom, if it looks brownish to you, and discard the outer leaves. Then cut lengthwise through the core to quarter it, and then cut that horizontally into pieces. You'll also have lots of leafy pieces that aren't connected to the core. After you add the cabbage, start a timer for one hour.

Add the potatoes. Add the kielbasa. Add the sauerkraut.

Add hot water until the pot is full to about two inches from the top. Everything should be submerged.

Your soup will be done one hour after you added the cabbage. Taste and adjust the seasoning, adding more salt if needed.

Grind some fresh pepper over the individual servings. It's a different kind of heat than the warmth of the cooked peppercorns. In case you didn't know, don't eat the bay leaves!

Enjoy this soup with some rustic bread for dipping, or all by itself. This is a filling meal in a bowl.